- Knowledge workers’ projects are measured in hours, days, or weeks — but get done in multiple focused sessions.
- Coping with interruptions is a lifelong practice, where small tweaks to the environment and habits can lead to great improvements for anyone.
- Immediate rewards can predict whether or not someone will achieve their long-term goals.
Once I missed a flight while waiting at the departure gate. I had arrived half an hour early and had some urgent programming to do, so I did the best that can be done in these situations: I sat down, opened my laptop, and started to work. The next time I looked up from my screen, the flight was gone. Two hundred passengers had passed in front of me, airline announcements had sounded, and the airplane had taken off—all while I was “in the zone.” I hadn’t looked up once.
I’m not exactly complaining. Being able to reach a flow state is a good thing, especially with the modern world and all its distractions.
Just ask a parent who’s working from home, or anyone in an open-plan office, how hard it is to get back into their work after being interrupted. The world has changed a lot since psychology professor Mihály Csikszentmihályi introduced the concept of “flow” in the 1970s, but our lives certainly haven’t become less distracting.
Many tasks that knowledge workers need to deliver are measured in hours, days, or weeks, and get done in multiple focused sessions. It’s only a matter of time until one is interrupted, and how long can someone be “in the zone” anyway? Becoming more resilient to disruptions and being able to quickly pick up a project where one left off are great skills to build and continue to improve on.
Building a distraction-free environment
Coping with interruptions is a lifelong practice. Some people are naturally better at it than others, but small tweaks to your environment and habits can lead to great improvements for anyone.
Writers know this well, and some of them develop routines to control their environment: They write with the same pen, at the same place, at the same hour of the day, while drinking the same drink, and listening to the same music. Others suggest ignoring routines altogether—just start writing without thinking too hard about it. As E.B. White, the author of Stuart Little and contributing writer and editor to The New Yorker put it, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
Ultimately, the best approach depends on the individual. It’s always a good idea to experiment. Your mileage may vary, but it’s generally helpful to create an environment that allows for uninterrupted focus on the task at hand. This might involve setting aside dedicated time for work, minimizing notifications on devices, and eliminating other potential sources of distraction.
Multitasking is bad, m’kay?
Multitasking seems like an efficient way to get things done: If we have two jobs to do, and we get both of those done at once, we just saved a whole bunch of time. As it turns out, this might actually work well as long as neither task requires a high level of concentration. For example, folding laundry takes as long as it takes whether we’re listening to an audiobook or not, so we might as well combine the two.
But take a slightly more difficult task, and the flaws of this plan start to show. People who take phone calls while driving, for instance, cause more accidents than those whose full attention is on the road.
In one study, professors Reynol Junco and Shelia Cotten compared students’ social media usage with their overall college GPA scores. They found that the more time a student spent messaging their friends, the worse their grades got—but emailing correlated with improved results.
For most cognitive work, multitasking is usually quite detrimental to productivity and performance. Having a tab open for social media while trying to complete schoolwork may tax a student’s capacity for cognitive processing. Constantly switching between tasks means increased stress and cognitive overload; it’s no wonder it leads to decreased accuracy on the task at hand.
Immediate rewards or long-term goals?
Some interruptions are inevitable and even healthy. Naturally, we can complete ever larger projects, but in return, we have to accept the fact that we’ll lose some efficiency and some progress along the way.
Planning helps with building resilience to interruptions. Working on one thing at a time goes a long way, and so does breaking up larger projects into smaller tasks. If a job can be done in one setting, it has a better chance of actually getting done—and if interruptions arise, it’s easier to put it aside and pick it up later. I, for one, am much more efficient in the morning, so I make sure to spend my first few work hours on focused work, and I schedule most of my meetings for the afternoon coffee time.
Breaking down large projects into more manageable bits has another advantage: We get rewarded more often. Researchers Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach looked at the way people pursue long-term goals for delayed rewards and found that immediate rewards predicted whether or not someone would achieve their goals. For example, when someone exercises to be healthier, we can tell if they will stick to their routine by simply looking at whether or not they’re having a good time in their classes.
For larger projects, having a good time can mean entering a flow state. Making sure that we can “enter the zone” to get work done might serve as an immediate reward in its own right, and can be an effective way of maintaining motivation and, ultimately, completing the project.
We are not computers that can just infinitely chug away at tasks. To enter a flow state, Csikszentmihályi recommends choosing a task that is challenging, but not overwhelming, removing distractions, and being open to the experience. Accept the fact that progress is unpredictable, and let it happen naturally—just go with the flow.
Junco, Reynol and Cotten, Shelia R., A Decade of Distraction? How Multitasking Affects Student Outcomes (September 13, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1927049 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1927049
Woolley K, Fishbach A. Immediate Rewards Predict Adherence to Long-Term Goals. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2017 Feb;43(2):151-162. doi: 10.1177/0146167216676480. PMID: 27899467.